HBO has garnered acclaim for their prestige TV offerings, but one of their most underrated contributions to the television landscape is 2015’s “7 Days in Hell,” a mockumentary of the infamous John Isner/Nicolas Mahut Wimbledon showdown that shattered the record for longest tennis match in history. On the strengths of stars Andy Samberg and Kit Harrington, “7 Days in Hell” also took aim at a few of the legendary tennis rivalries of the 70s, 80s and 90s that brought the sport into the mainstream.
It’s a goofy, perfectly timed spoof that plays with the familiar tropes of sports docs, namely the ones in ESPN’s “30 for 30” series. Apparently, it worked so well that HBO wanted more. Samberg and “7 Days in Hell” writer Murray Miller have reteamed for another trip through niche sports history with “Tour de Pharmacy,” a fictional look at a doping scandal in the world of 80s cycling.
Neither of these are faithful homages along the lines of “Documentary Now!” but they do touch on subject matter that “30 for 30” has tangentially addressed as well. “This is What They Want” followed a landmark series of matches for notable tennis hothead Jimmy Connors at the 1991 U.S. Open. “Slaying the Badger” — one of the best of the ESPN doc batch — charts the rise of Greg LeMond, the first American to win the Tour de France.
So if these first two Samberg-led comedies can reinvent stories that “30 for 30” got to first, here are a few other places we’d love to see this team go next.
Original Synopsis: Southern Methodist University received the “death penalty” in 1987 because of corruption and greed, stripping a community of its identity.
Given that ESPN has hitched its wagon to the fountain of cash that is modern college football, there’s plenty of collegiate athletic stories from this series that would give Samberg another chance to play someone demonstrably younger than he actually is. (It worked wonderfully in “Popstar.”) You can almost imagine a theoretical Samberg character denying the existence of a bribe, then a smash-cut to grainy surveillance footage of the most obvious public cash exchange possible.
“Hit It Hard”
Official Synopsis: If professional golf were put to country music, then the song would be about John Daly. Ever since he shocked the sports world by winning the PGA Championship at Crooked Stick 25 years ago, the blond bomber from Dardanelle, Arkansas has been one of the most popular-and polarizing-figures in a sport that cherishes its traditions and minds its manners.
Part of what made “7 Days in Hell” special — and has us excited for “Tour de Pharmacy” — is that it takes aim at the media surrounding a sport that doesn’t usually get its share of headlines. Yes, it’s skewering British press, but nowhere in a basketball parody would you get a chance for Michael Sheen to deliver the greatest one-word line reading of his (or anyone else’s) career. Golf has its own level of tiny absurdities, but the hushed tones and persistent pageantry of tournament telecasts would give plenty of opportunities for everyone on the sidelines to get in on the fun.
Original Synopsis: Uses the case of Steve Bartman — the fan who interfered with an in-play ball and was vilified for costing the Chicago Cubs a crucial 2003 playoff game — to examine the widespread phenomenon of scapegoating in the sports world.
Thankfully, last fall’s Cubs championship closed one particular chapter in the Bartman saga. Much like Bill Buckner came back a beloved figure after the Red Sox finally won in ‘04 (Samberg would also make a great Kevin Millar type in an alternate version of “Four Days in October,” by the way), this could be a chance for history’s most maligned Cubs fan to get a very public redemption, and to get some jabs in at the Chicago natives who effectively forced him underground. And even though Samberg’s mockumentary characters are best when they’re larger than life, this could be a fun chance for him build a central character around something more muted.
Official Synopsis: Sucked into bad investments, stalked by freeloaders, saddled with medical problems, and naturally prone to showing off, many pro athletes get shocked by harsh economic realities after years of living the high life.
“30 for 30” films often dive into the sad truths behind some of sports’ biggest figures. Some of these topics are too grave to poke fun at, but there’s something about Billy Corben’s documentary that could be converted into the same kind of dark comedy that lies under the “7 Days in Hell.” With a movie that dug more into the pre-fall excess and still acknowledged the real financial challenges faced by many former athletes, there might be something there. (At the very least, it would make the perfect lead-in for “Ballers.”)
“I Hate Christian Laettner”
Official Synopsis: Christian Laettner helped Duke win two national titles in four straight trips to the Final Four. He had looks, smarts and game. So why has he been intensely disliked by so many for so long?
Aaron Williams, Samberg’s “7 Days in Hell” character, delighted in being the object of other people’s anger. What better way to use those bad boy chops than to play a version of the one basketball player that fans loved to hate the most? The Duke rivalries of the early 90s and, well, any time during the Krzyzewski era would be the perfect fodder for this group if they ever wanted to shift their focus to the hardwood. (Armisen’s a shoo-in for Coach K, by the way.)
“Tour de Pharmacy” premieres July 8 on HBO. “7 Days in Hell” is currently streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now.